A study published by Britain’s Sussex University in 2007 found that Kenya’s free schools were “a matter of political expediency … not adequately planned and resourced,” and as a result, there have actually been more dropouts and a falling quality of education.
Conversely, the number of private schools has increased tenfold as parents look for alternatives to overcrowded classrooms.
The situation is similar in neighboring Tanzania, which did away with school fees a year earlier in 2002. The student population also skyrocketed, leading to packed classrooms, book shortages, overused toilets, a teacher scarcity and an increase in paddling students to keep order.
The Economist has highlighted the ongoing competition in Africa, including in Kenya, between Iran and Israel: “A Search For Allies in a Hostile World“. In the East Africa/Greater Horn region, Sudan is Iran’s key ally and Ethiopia is Israel’s.
With diplomatic battles approaching over sanctions for Iran’s nuclear program in the context of all of the existing competition for influence, resources and business opportunities, the leverage for existing African players to extract corrupt rents are likely to increase. The Kenya Publicity Tour to Washington last week invited the US to once again move away from a strong stand on corruption and move on with greater government to government support and incentives for investment without waiting to see actual reforms in light of the 2007 election debacle.
To date we haven’t seen accountability for the multi-year theft of public education funds that triggered first the UK and then the US to freeze a small amount of education assistance. While the PM and others are pressing for the resignation of the Education Minister, the funds have gone missing each year of the first Kibaki Administration as well, as indicated in the report from Transparency International. Removing the current minister (who presumably would remain a Member of Parliament and, if patterns hold, soon enough get another ministerial appointment in another agency) is not a substantive answer.
Likewise, action on the Rift Valley Railroad concession remains elusive and deferred. And accounting for the “Internally Displaced Funds” associated with the “Internally Displaced Persons” from the post-election violence remains outstanding. And the bills continue to come due, literally, from the Anglo Leasing scandal (you may remember this as the scandal that was supposedly caught in time to prevent major loss to the taxpayers–doesn’t seem to be working out that way).
Key players, at least, in the US government supported Kibaki’s re-election in 2007 in spite of the corruption concerns. Is Kenya better off now? What US interests were actually advanced? In particular, how is the situation in Somalia better now than it was in the fall of 2007? Let’s “don’t get fooled again” and maintain a focus on helping Kenyans who share the values to which we aspire to build a stronger and more prosperous country–by maintaining a strong and steady focus on improved governance and fighting corruption. We have a bad record on the geopolitical gamesmanship in Kenya, in my estimation, and values aside, I don’t think it has worked very well.
Now that the US has–very appropriately in my book–moved to join the UK in suspending budgetary assistance for Kenya’s “free” public education program pending accountability for the corruption that has now come to light going back to the early days of the first Kibaki administration–it might be worthwhile to also ask ourselves how we got duped, too.
Here is Gene Sperling, writing in Huffington Post as Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. (and former National Economic Advisor to President Clinton) in September 2008 after spending a week in Nairobi (excerpts with emphasis added):
And in a bright spot, one area where this coalition government seems truly united is on education. Kenya made international news in 2003 by eliminating the terrible practice of charging even poor parents fees for each child they send to school – a practice that denies tens of millions of your people – especially girls – an education in much of the developing world. The announcement of free education by President Kibaki brought 1 million new children into school in one week! Since then, enrollment has gone from 5.9 million to over 8 million. Now Kenya is taking the pioneering step of eliminating fees for secondary school – even though it will cost the government ten times the amount to cover the cost of secondary school as opposed to primary school. While parents still face the expenses of boarding, uniforms, and travel, the abolition of fees has again led to a surge in enrollment.
While President Kibaki and his first Education Minister George Saitoti – both of the PNU – deserve great credit for pushing the elimination of fees, the Orange Democratic Movement seems just as committed. When I met with Prime Minister Odinga in his Nairobi office, he told me that the same education goals were in the platforms of both parties because “we all agree that education will be the ultimate engine of Kenya’s economic growth.”
The Ministry of Education has garnered international respect through both excellent civil servants like Permanent Secretary Karega Mutahi and Basic Education Secretary George Godia as well as their decentralized and transparent system for dispersing funds to local school districts. Rather than hold the money in the Ministry of Education, Kenya ensures that every shilling gets to the local level by depositing a per-child grant of 1,020 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $15 USD) to local banks accounts for each school. The headmaster is then required to post the amount received in plain view (which I saw firsthand in school after school that I visited) and work more closely with parent committees on how to spend the money that anything I had witnessed in the United States.
While Kenya is stepping up to the plate with serious reforms and the financial commitment to replace lost school fees – including for 4,000 secondary schools – they cannot do it alone. The overwhelming funds needed are for teacher salaries – which typically make up 80% of school budgets. What Kenya most needs from the international community is help with the recurrent costs that would come with hiring the 47,000 new teachers that current Minister of Education Sam Ongeri says Kenya needs to handle the additional three million students while focusing on quality.
And make no mistake about how badly needed these funds are. The reality remained during my time in Nairobi in 2007-2008 that even in the capital the public schools were treated by parents as a last resort. Classroom conditions were very poor even where the exteriors were brightly painted, sometimes by advertisers. And of course no electricity. These funds were certainly needed.